The water bathed in light as it splashed about.
“Orba! You’re not coming? The cold water feels really nice!”
Alice called out to him from the river’s shoal. Her white legs were bare under the cuffs of her trousers as she frolicked about like a child. After all, it was a hot day out. Stretched out on the shore, Orba gave an unenthusiastic reply.
Back then, Alice had also called Orba and his brother over while standing in the river. His older brother Roan, who was not as good at swimming as Orba, had eventually been pulled along by Alice and been comically at a loss of what to do in the water.
In the end, nothing changes.
These were the thoughts Orba had as he looked up vacantly. That had been one month before the recurring skirmishes between the two countries, Mephius and Garbera, intensified. Apta Fortress, located close to the village where they lived, got besieged by the Garberan forces and the Mephian army started recruiting soldiers from the neighbouring villages. There were, of course, also those who applied for the army themselves, having given up on the high taxes, but half of them still got recruited against their will.
Orba’s older brother Roan had been one of them. Instead of picking up a sword, his brother was more the type to open a book and teach things to children, but he’d left the village with a smile on his face. It was about two weeks ago that Orba and Alice had watched his back retreating in the distance.
And waiting for Orba was a not so ordinary daily life. An arid wind blew through the barely fertile, steep, rugged, and rocky wastelands surrounding the village. The best way pass the time in a situation like this was to dive into the river beneath the cliffs and swim around.
“You had a fight again with Doug from the other village, didn’t you?” Alice said, smiling, as she shook off the droplets of water in her hair.
“It wasn’t a fight. It was a duel.”
“Sure, sure - a duel,” Alice said, suppressing a giggle. “How come the two of you can’t get along, though? I met him at the festival last year and he seemed like a polite, good kid, asking me ‘How is Orba-kun doing?’ and such.”
“He uses cowardly tactics when he can’t win a duel. He might’ve ensnared you, Alice, but I don’t intend to let myself get careless. This is the same guy that tricked us when he said he saw a wild dragon. Thanks to him, we ended up walking all over the place…”
“It wasn’t us but only you that got tricked, right? We were just forced to come along with you.”
“That’s not true. Wasn’t everybody excited about it? Even Roan-niisan?”
Suddenly, the smile on Alice’s face disappeared. Also holding his tongue, Orba laid his half-risen body back on the ground. The unnatural silence continued for a while until Orba again heard the sound of splashing water.
At the same time he could hear her humming.
Alice liked to sing. She resembled her father in that, who always sang in a loud voice when drunk. But even so, she rarely ever took up singing in public. He had heard her sing among the rocks just outside of the village once. And one time at the annual festival, the men had invited her from among the women to sing. Back then, Orba had noticed Alice get a bright flush to her cheeks and move away as if trying to escape.
And you’ve got such a nice voice.
He looked up at the clear sky above. Was his brother looking up at the same view?
It had already been two weeks since he left. His brother’s absence from home had become a usual thing, because he’d always been working in the capital, but right now time seemed to be passing by very slowly. Especially when he and his mother were having their meals.
To forget his anxiousness and worries, in between his job of looking after the small number of livestock, he never got tired of absorbing himself in reading the books he’d received as presents from his brother. When his eyes moved over the words, Orba turned from a powerless boy from a tiny back country into barbarian king Gape, dragon-slaying hero Clovis, or the adventurer known as Marlow, who had crossed the sea to finally arrive at the world of snow and ice where the Winged Tribe lived.
And when he chased the texts and it became to hard for him to endure the throbbing rush of blood in his body, he would always pick up his wooden sword and wield it so engrossedly until not a single drop of sweat could leave his body anymore.
One day, I’ll go there too!
Blocking the scorching sun with the palm of his hand, Orba hardened that determination for the umpteenth time.
I’ll take up the sword and fight in a war somewhere. I’ll flourish, become a hero, and make mom happy. Then I can wield a sword and fight in my brother’s stead.
He clenched the hand he used to block the sun tightly into a fist and, having read those many stories, imagined carving his own name among those dazzling military records.
There was still some warmth lingering in his hand. It was at this time that he wished he could’ve given his brother a hand when he left. He still remembered that touch even now. Back when he had to part from everyone and before he’d turned around, Roan had promptly held out his hand, but Orba had been too embarrassed and refused to give him a hand.
“It’s okay,” Roan had said as he’d grabbed his hand tight. “Before long, good things will happen to you.”
Ever since then, Orba thought that his brother’s words held some strange hidden meaning within.
He swiftly raised his head when he noticed the sound of splashing water and Alice’s humming had ceased. He saw that Alice’s figure had become smaller. Near the river bank, where the river got wider, even an adult wouldn’t be able to stand. And Alice was already up to her chest in the water.
Alice turned her head only once and gave Orba an enigmatic smile. Then she faced forward again, took one step, then another, and kept moving further away from Orba. No matter how many times he called after her, she wouldn’t stop.
Yelling out to her in his loudest voice, Orba started running for the river. His feet splashed into the water and before long he was paddling with both arms and legs, dead set on moving forward. He slipped his head underneath the surface, but even though the river’s transparency was high, he couldn’t spot her underwater. Then, when he raised his head to catch his breath, something clung to him from behind.
Alice was giggling close to his ear. Her clothes were soaking wet, and he could feel her body, as well as her warm breath, touching him. Orba was at a loss for words and he frantically tried to get out of her embrace.
“Wait!” the girl, three years his senior, whispered, as her warm breath tickled Orba’s ears. “Stay like this for a while.”
This is… She couldn’t be crying, right?
Orba immediately thought.
He couldn’t remember for how long they’d huddled together. He was certain that, while their two bodies continued to drift about in the water with the sun burning above their heads, he could hear Alice make a small sob every now and then as her warm body pushed against him.
Orba thought again, slowly dozing off into the space between sleep and reality.
The touch of her skin pushing against him, although it wasn’t the truth of what happened, left burning traces in his heart that remained there even now from that hot day long past.
Just what was going on? What is it that Alice wanted from me? No… this wasn’t about me…
Orba turned over in his bed and suddenly woke up. There wasn’t the touch of iron as he hit the bed. In other words, that depressing iron mask wasn’t currently covering his face. Sitting up on his bed, Orba timidly brushed his fingers across his cheek.
It was his own skin after all.
Wiping the perspiration away, Orba crossed the spacious room and opened the curtains. From the balcony overlooking the garden, he could see the streets of the imperial city Solon.
This was not the remote village surrounded by steep cliffs and discoloured earth. Orba was no longer the boy from back then, but he was no longer a slave or gladiator either. The twists and turns of fate had somehow made him carry the name and face of Gil Mephius, the firstborn prince of the Imperial Dynasty of Mephius.
But the sky was blue.
At least that remained the same. And the many emotions burning inside his chest also hadn’t changed from his childhood days.
He leaned against the side of the bed and unconsciously pulled the sword he kept close out of his sheath. He stared at the name ‘Orba’ engraved in the blade, and steeled his heart in order to again wear this flesh-coloured mask today.